When Stanley Druckenmiller shuttered his hedge fund in 2010, it was widely reported that the billionaire was retiring to focus on philanthropy. So when I spoke with him late last year, I asked him how it was going.
“I never said that,” he said. “I’m not really retired. I got rid of my clients and converted to a family office. I’m still working 60 hours a week on my day job. My focus has always been there and hasn’t really changed.”
Even with the 69-year-old busy managing his own considerable fortune, the Druckenmiller Foundation has become a formidable, if low-profile, philanthropic force in the last decade-plus. With a $1.9 billion endowment as of fiscal year 2021, the foundation’s assets put it among the country’s 100 largest philanthropies, according to FoundationIQ. Druckenmiller and his wife, Fiona, regularly make multimillion-dollar commitments to hospitals, universities and top nonprofits, including leading grantees like NYU and the antipoverty collaborative Blue Meridian. Bloomberg puts his wealth at $10.1 billion, so the foundation has the potential to get a lot bigger. (Be sure to check out our recent rundown of the foundation’s giving here.)
Druckenmiller says he spends 15 to 30 hours on philanthropy per week, depending on the week. Much is in conference calls for nonprofits like Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where he serves on the board and to which he and his wife pledged $100 million last year. He said he also has frequent conversations with nonprofit leaders like Fred Krupp, the president of EDF, which the Druckenmillers have supported with tens of millions of dollars.
Reports of Druckenmiller’s retirement are not the only exaggerated chapter in his philanthropic biography. Stanley and his wife, Fiona, have sent tens of millions to the Harlem Children’s Zone over the past three decades, helping to make it one of the nation’s largest antipoverty organizations. Perhaps as a result, multiple sources (including IP) have claimed that he and the nonprofit’s longtime president, Geoffrey Canada, were roommates or friends while attending Bowdoin College.
“I never met Geoff Canada at Bowdoin. The first time I ever set eyes on him was at a grantmaking meeting,” said Druckenmiller, who was serving on the Robin Hood Foundation board at the time. “We were at Bowdoin at the same time. But Jeff, he came from the hood, he was not some doctor’s son or something, which is one of the things I liked about him. … For some reason, we never crossed paths. But I would say he’s definitely one of my best friends now.”
As you’ll see, Druckenmiller does not mince words, and during our conversation, he spoke freely about a range of topics: his approach to philanthropy, what he doesn’t like about the Giving Pledge, why his foundation has no website, what he and his wife look for in organizations they fund, and why he feels “incredibly privileged.”
The billionaire started the conversation by saying he wanted to “pre-apologize” because he was alone in a room with a 12-week-old puppy that was being “a terror this morning.” (I didn’t hear a peep.) We ultimately spoke for a half-hour, then the veteran financier told me he had to wrap it up. “One more question, Michael, then I gotta get back to making some money.”
Here’s our conversation, which has been edited for clarity and length.
What motivates you as a philanthropist?
There’s a few buckets Fiona and I really care about, though I don’t really want to prioritize them in terms of passion. Economic mobility is big with us. It’s very underfunded in the United States. I’m a huge believer in the American dream, even though I grew up in the middle class with a proper education. As great as America is, I think that’s open to maybe 90% to 95% of our population. There are pockets or neighborhoods where kids just don’t have a chance. I’m not an “equal outcome” guy, but I am an “equal opportunity” guy.
Another area is the environment. Same playbook. Love the Environmental Defense Fund. They like results. They make things happen, rather than a lot of screaming advocacy, which I would say some of the groups have. I’ve known Fred Krupp for 25 years. I love what he does.
In health, we have the same playbook. We made a big bet on NYU. Columbia had a bunch of 70-year-old Nobel Prize winners; it looked like the obvious choice. But NYU looked hungrier, [enrolling] a lot of immigrants and most importantly, they had Bob Grossman and Ken Langone. I think they went from ranked 50th nationally as a hospital and school to now second. Just behind Harvard. Again, we didn’t do much other than fund. We bet on leadership.
Those are the three big buckets: health, economic mobility and the environment.
Within those areas, how do you choose what to fund?
It’s pretty much the same as my day job. I looked at philanthropic endeavors as investments, particularly that will have an impact over the longer term. The other common denominator is that when we look at companies, they have to have great management. We bet on the leader. We want to own the best-in-class in terms of management.
A lot of philanthropy likes to continue putting little bits of money into new areas, things like that. We’re more of the model, if you find a great leader, and find out they can scale well, just continue funding them. That’s why we’re pretty much steady as you go — and incredibly excited about the stuff we’re doing. Though if something new comes up, that would be wonderful.
You haven’t mentioned personal connections, but I see a lot of giving to your family’s alma maters and you cite these long relationships with founders. Are relationships a major motivation?
Not really. In terms of colleges, that was early on in our philanthropic journey. We didn’t really know what we were doing or where in the early ’90s. Like everybody else, you give to college and to institutions. But over time, we thought we could have a bigger impact, priority-wise, in the three spaces I talked about.
What’s your long-term philanthropic plan? Are you aiming for perpetuity or spending down?
It’s pretty much a pay-as-you-go system. If I have a big year, we put a lot in. If I don’t make enough money to cover expenses, we don’t put a lot in that year. There’s no systematic plan. I hope we put a lot into the foundation, because it means I made a lot of money and been a success. Much more importantly, we’ll get the joy of hopefully funding successful outcomes.
Going forward almost all [my earnings] — above my tax rate, above my living expenses — will go toward philanthropy. That’s because I’ve taken care of estate needs and everything else like that. I’ve been more successful than I thought I would have been 30 years ago. We enjoy giving immensely. Hopefully, I’ll live long enough and Fiona will live long enough, that we’ll have been able to fund a lot of satisfactory outcomes. Ideally, we’d like to end near zero.
You intend to “end near zero.” But you have not signed the Giving Pledge. Why not?
I don’t really see the purpose of my signing the Giving Pledge. People worth hundreds of billions of dollars saying they’re going to give half of their worth away — I don’t think that really moves the needle on drawing in other philanthropists.
Maybe because of my Pittsburgh background, I enjoy Andrew Carnegie’s approach of being as anonymous as possible. Obviously, I wouldn’t be talking to you if it was totally anonymous, but I did not seek out this interview. I certainly don’t want any publicity for our philanthropy. We enjoy it immensely, but we don’t like to wear it on our sleeves and make a big deal about it.
Your foundation is one of the largest in the country, but has no website and minimal publicity. How do you balance your desire for privacy versus being transparent as a major institution?
First of all, I don’t consider us a major institution. But I’m not seeking privacy or transparency. We’re trying to make money and give it away and affect outcomes. And I’ll stack our record up against anybody. The progress at NYU, the progress on cancer, that is what matters to me, not some article in the Wall Street Journal or in your publication. Every dollar I spend on the website is a dollar I can’t give to Memorial Sloan Kettering, Harlem Children’s Zone. So why would I?
Your foundation’s giving has risen and fallen over long periods, averaging 6.3% of its assets between 2009 and 2013, and then only about 3.9% in the five years ending in 2018. Did something change?
I wasn’t even aware of those numbers. Nothing’s changed. We give money opportunistically. The only thing changing is that bigger and better opportunities are presenting themselves. As they do, we’ve funded them. Ideally, we’d like to end with our money at zero. That’s obviously easier said than done, and I’m still in peak earning years. If I have a heart attack tomorrow, we will have failed. If I live another 25 years, we will probably come very close. There’s definitely been no change in terms of our philanthropic focus.
An increasing number of philanthropists use their assets to further their impact, such as Laurene Powell Jobs or Bill Gates. Is that something that’s had any impact in your investing?
No, I don’t do that. The best thing I can do is to make the highest return I can. Our investment philosophy, in my day job and in philanthropy, the philosophy is the same. There are a couple of red lines that we don’t invest in because we don’t like how they make their money. The obvious one is with tobacco stocks. There are a few areas, but we don’t like to talk about it publicly.
How involved are your daughters in the foundation, and how do you and Fiona split the philanthropic decisions?
My middle daughter has a Ph.D. in environmental economics, and we’ve got some ideas from her. But right now, my daughters are young and extremely busy. Two of them are raising children and have full-time jobs. For some of my peers, it becomes the primary job of their children. I’d rather my children work for their passions. They all have incredibly interesting jobs and that’s their focus. But I have no doubt they’ll be increasingly involved over time.
There’s no formal process. She comes up with ideas she likes, and I come up with ideas I like. We’re aligned and there’s plenty of money. We don’t measure whether it’s split down the middle. It really doesn’t matter because I love everything she’s initiated and I think she likes the stuff I’ve done.
We feel incredibly privileged to have grown up in the United States and have the opportunities I’ve had. We just really, really enjoy giving money away. I don’t think of it in terms of giving back or an obligation. We do it because it gives us immense pleasure to try to help solve some of the gaps and problems in this country. We just feel unbelievably privileged.